I went to my first heroin funeral last week.
It was for a young man I didn’t know, from a family that I know pretty well. I knew he was struggling. I also knew how hard his loved ones were trying to save him. I hoped they would succeed. I feared they would not. So did they.
The death toll just keeps rising. Eleven people each week are victims of suspected heroin and opiate overdoses in Erie County. If this keeps up, and there is little reason to think it won’t, the number will approach 600 this year.
The shocking numbers have forced us to pay attention, and it’s good that elected officials are talking and that resources are being spent to try and do something.
Meanwhile, people keep dying.
I’ve been reading the stories, just like everyone else. I had a hard time comprehending what’s happening, just like everyone else. A different friend of mine is dealing with a family member who is in the throes of this addiction and I keep telling him I have no idea what he is going through.
It’s easier to comprehend now. Funerals have a way of making the abstract clear.
Every funeral is a sad experience, but there is something especially terrible when it is for a young person. Part of it is the limitless promise that is suddenly gone. Part of it is the look on the faces of the other young people who are forced to confront their own mortality for the first time, to think about death when they are brimming with life.
Here’s what I can tell you about one of the dozens of people we have lost to this epidemic so far this year: He was smart. He was athletic. He had a good sense of humor. He was an overachiever. He liked to skateboard. He cared about others.
His aunt and uncle rescued him from a difficult life. They gave him the love, the home and the family he needed. They gave him an example to follow every day.
It wasn’t enough. In the end, they were no match for the drugs.
I stood on his uncle’s front porch and held him as he sobbed. I stood in his kitchen and listened as he talked about the rehab, the relapses, the second, third and fourth chances and his ultimately misguided hope that he could be saved. He wondered if he should have called the police, that if his nephew were in prison, at least he would still be alive. I told him not to blame himself.
When I saw him at the funeral, I hugged him again. He begged me to look at him and smile as he delivered what was a devastatingly eloquent eulogy he would have given anything to not deliver. I promised him I would try, and indeed, appeared for all the world to be smiling as my heart thumped and tears welled.
But the words that will haunt me forever, the words I will think of every time someone dismisses a heroin death as avoidable and pointless and the price to be paid, came not from the man who tried and tried and tried to save his nephew, but from another man: his next-door neighbor.
He also gave a eulogy and seemed to be shaking as he read from his notes. He said he didn’t want the mourners to think about the drugs or the pain or the heartbreak or the death. He wanted everyone there to know what he knew about the one person he knew who died of a drug overdose last week, one of the 11 per week, one of the nearly 600 we expect to lose this year.
So he started and ended his eulogy with the same five words:
“He was a good boy.”
I wiped tears from my eyes as I left my first heroin funeral last week. I hope I never have to go to another one.
More than that, I hope you never have to go to your first one.